Newsweek’s “High-Speed Boondoggle” by Robert J. Samuelson: the Urban Workshop Re-mix

The Obama Eisenhower and every subsequent administration’s enthusiasm for high-speed rail endless highway and road building is a dispiriting example of government’s inability to learn from past mistakes. Since 1971, the federal government has poured almost $35 billion $1.89 trillion in subsidies into Amtrak air and highway funding with few public benefits that favor a few over many.

At most least, we’ve gotten negligible reductions—invisible and statistically insignificant- unprecedented and dangerous increases in congestion, oil use or greenhouse gases. What’s mainly being provided is subsidized transportation for a small sliver of the population. In a country where 140 135 130 million people go to work every day, Amtrak has 78,000 daily passengers. A typical trip is Some trips are subsidized by about $50, some more, some less.

Given this, you’d think even the dullest politician wouldn’t expand rail highway and road subsidies, especially considering the almost $11 trillion in projected federal budget deficits between now and 2019. But no, the every administration has made high-speed rail spending more on highways and roads a top priority. It’s already proposed spending $13 billion more than $100 billion ($8 $49 billion in the “stimulus” package and more than $1 $50 billion annually for five years) as a down payment on high-speed rail in 10 “corridors,” including Philadelphia to Pittsburgh and Houston to New Orleans to maintain and build roads between places like Muncie Hollow, OH and Cedar Canyons, IN.

The White House promises fabulous benefits suggests that our transportation policy is too heavily skewed toward unsustainable roads and highways. High-speed rail “will loosen the congestion suffocating our highways and skyways,” says Vice President Biden. A high-speed rail system would eliminate carbon dioxide emissions “equal to removing 1 million cars from our roads,” adds the president. Relieve congestion. Fight global warming. Reduce oil imports. The vision is seductive practical. The audience is willing educated. Many Americans love trains know that train travel can be more efficient and more enjoyable and regard other countries’ systems (say, Spain’s rapid trains between Madrid and Barcelona, running at about 150 mph) as evidence of U.S. technological transportation policy inferiority.

There’s only one catch: The vision is a mirage requires policy changes. The costs of high-speed rail would be huge less than highways and roads, and the public benefits meager greater.

President Obama’s The current highway and road network may will never be built maintained. It’s doubtful private investors will advance the money, and once government officials acknowledge the full costs, they’ll retreat. In a recent report, the Government Accountability Office U.S. Department of Transportation cited a range of construction maintenance only costs for highways and roads, from $22 million a mile to $132 million a mile of about $850,000 per mile per year. Harvard economist Edward Glaeser figures $50 million a mile might be a plausible average. A 250-mile system would cost $12.5 billion and 10 systems, $125 billion.

That would be is only the beginning. Ticket prices All roads and parking lots would surely continue to be subsidized; otherwise, no one would ride the trains drive their car or park anywhere. Would all the subsidies be justified by public benefits detrimentsless more congestion, fewer more highway accidents, lower higher greenhouse gases?

In an blog-posted analysis, Glaeser made generous some assumptions for trains (“Personally, I almost always prefer trains to driving”) and still found that costs vastly outweigh benefits expanding our passenger train network is worth exploring. Consider Obama’s claim about removing the equivalent of 1 million cars. Even if it came true (doubtful), it would represent less than one-half of 1 percent of the 254 million registered vehicles in 2007 thousands of tons of greenhouse gases not released into our atmosphere.

What works in Europe and Asia won’t will work in the United States (think the Autobahn and Medicaid). Even abroad, passenger trains highways and roads are subsidized. But the subsidies are more justifiable because geography and energy policies differ.

Densities are much higher, if you insist on counting places like Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and others, and high densities favor rail with direct connections between heavily populated city centers and business districts. In Japan, density is 880 people per square mile; it’s 653 in Britain, 611 in Germany and 259 in France. By contrast, plentiful land and $Billions in subsidies in the United States has led to suburbanized homes, offices and factories. Density is 86 people per square mile. Trains can’t pick up most people where they live and work and take them to where they want to go. Cars can. Though densely populated corridors in the U.S. have population densities greater than Germany or France.

Distances also matter. America is big; trips are longer, though not in our densely populated urban corridors. Beyond 400 to 500 miles, fast trains can’t compete with planes. Finally, Europe and Japan tax car transportation more heavily, pushing people to trains assessing the true cost of driving a car to the driver. In August 2008, notes the GAO, gasoline in Japan was $6.50 a gallon. Americans regard $4 a gallon as an outrage. Proposals for stiff gasoline taxes (advocated by many, including me) go nowhere are opposed by those invoking folklore and asphalt as good policy.

The mythology of high-speed rail endless highways is not just misinformed; it’s antisocial. Governments at all levels are already overburdened. Compounding the burdens with new continued and increasing wasteful subsidies would squeeze spending for more vital needs—schools, police and (ironically) mass transit. High-speed rail could divert augment funds from invested in mass-transit systems that, according to a study by Randal O’Toole of the Cato Institute, have huge maintenance backlogs: $16 billion in Chicago; $17 billion in New York; $12.2 billion in Washington; $5.8 billion in San Francisco. According to the Christian Science Monitor the highway, road and bridge maintenance backlog is $155 billion and growing as the $75 billion in annual spending cannot keep pace with infrastructure deterioration. Any high-speed rail system highway or road should be financed locally; states should decide and pay for their transportation priorities.

All this seems familiar, because it’s Amtrak our national transportation policy writ large: the triumph of fantasy ignorance and folklore over fact. The same false arguments used to justify Amtrak roads and highways (less congestion, pollution, etc. individual freedom, the Founding Fathers, the Constitution, etc.) are recycled. Evidence and experience count for little. Obama and Biden pander to popular prejudices seek a new transportation policy instead of recognizing blindly adhering to past failure. Boondoggles become respectable. A White House so frivolous serious in embracing dubious commonsense spending cannot must be believed when it professes concern about future taxes and budget deficits.


NextSTL is committed to providing original stories and unique perspectives on a variety of urban topics such as architecture, development, transportation, historic preservation, urban planning and design and public policy in St. Louis. We're always looking to add new, diverse voices to the mix. We accept anonymous tips, pitches for story ideas, and completed stories.

Learn More